Tuesday, August 13, 2013

800 Words: Dreamgirls - An Opera Lover's Perspective

(another rerun from 2009)

For nearly two years, I've had this vague curiosity about Dreamgirls.  I've heard from some sources that I don't always trust that it's incredible, and others I do trust have told me I have to avoid Dreamgirls like the plague.  For two years the latter is exactly what I did.  

But something gnawed at me about this movie.  A movie that is supposed to look unflinchingly at the business of entertainment would have to put each of these stars in the proper lights they never seem to fill.  I love Eddie Murphy, how can anyone not?  As a young man he would simply explode off the screen.  But year after year, he coasts through bad projects, getting second chance after second chance from an audience that would do anything to see him make great movies again.  I have a vague respect of Jamie Foxx but I rarely see him in something good enough for his talent - he seems too smart for even his better movies, as though he's a sort of robot who does an impeccable Ray Charles.  And I'm just plain irritated by Beyonce, she really is as processed and packaged a commodity as today's world has.  I can't be alone in thinking she's not even a good guilty pleasure.   This movie would have to have an Eddie Murphy in all his explosive charisma, a Jamie Foxx with all his cold intelligence intact, and a Beyonce completely honest about her vacuousness.  In an era of crappy movie musicals, can anybody be blamed for being dismissive about this movie's prospects?

And so, with nobody home I did a thing I'd never do otherwise: I found the beginning of Dreamgirls on HBO, and I didn't keep channel surfing, and what I found dug deeper into the dirt than anything I could imagine.  No doubt there is plenty of room to carp: if you take them out of context the songs are often RENT-level in their insipidness.  But then again, so often is opera.  What matters is the primal emotion that underlays.  This is no RENT-like imagining of bohemian life by people too white bread to understand it.  Dreamgirls may have been marketed as a glitz and glamor nostalgia tour, but the movie is in fact anything but.  It is shockingly, savagely honest about the entertainment world, only flinching into some maudlin sentimentality in the final scenes.  The movie is about The American Story, retold as ever it has been in everything from The Great Gatsby to Big Love - built upon the idea that in America all goals are possible so long as people have the will to succeed.

And so it is with the reptilian engine of will in this plot: a used car salesman named Curtis Taylor Jr.  It is a tribute to the movie that there is no attempt to make him a cartoon villain whose machinations inspire pure hatred.  Like Charles Foster Kane or Michael Corleone, he has his own dreams and his own reasons, and the fact that he has his reasons for acting as he does makes him much more frightening.  Regardless of the human cost, Curtis Taylor is the will to succeed, and succeed he does at a cost that is slightly devastating.  People like Curtis Taylor took the music of the projects, tamed it into something acceptable for incurious white audiences and watered down the art of it into something too bland to be remembered.  

And so he does with Jimmy Early.  Eddie Murphy plays a soul singer named James "Thunder" Early.  Everything about this character, down to the name, is supposed to be redolent of James Brown.  But Early can just as easily be a stand in for every great R&B singer from Sam Cooke to Marvin Gaye to Otis Redding (and at many points, for Murphy himself).  Jimmy is a performer of such self-destructive animal charisma that he devours everything in his path from food to women to drugs.  He is a walking machine of id that cannot think past his own immediate desires.  He cannot be restrained, directed, or appeased.  He can only be humiliated.  If Jimmy cannot be made to sing like Johnny Mathis, all Curtis has to do is let Early be himself, and that is what destroys his career.

At the same time, Curtis takes a talented but small-time R&B trio of female friends from the Detroit projects and streamlines them into the biggest sensation in pop.  The trio, called the Dreamettes, are obviously supposed to remind us of The Supremes.  Taylor does this by taking Deena Jones, the least talented but most beautiful of the three, and making her the star.  Deena Jones is an obvious standin for Diana Ross, but she could just as easily be Beyonce.  Marketed and produced to a point of no independence, her fame is a kind of slavery.  She is a commodity who exists to be sold by others to others.  Any attempt by her to have some independence or creativity in her act is snuffed out before it can even begin.  By the end of the movie, she is just a shell for other people's desires.

To make Dreamettes into a sensation, Curtis needs to get rid of the trio's true artist.  Effie James begins as the lead singer, but as the movie progresses she is thrust further and further aside to the margins until the movie nearly eliminates her.  Like James Early, she is an uncontainable force of nature too unique to be packaged.  If she had been born ten years earlier she might have sung at the Obama inauguration with Aretha Franklin, but originals are too precious for too many to survive.  As the Dreamettes move to success, Effie moves ever downward, back to the projects, and in so many ways becomes a standin for all the forgotten people of America's bad neighborhoods, denied the opportunities that a great country should have given them.   

Where the movie went wrong was in giving Effie a second chance.  Just as Curtis, Jimmy and Deena have their real-life counterparts, so does Effie White.  Before Diana Ross was The Supremes lead, she was the backup to Florence Ballard .  A full-figured singer whose image was entirely bound within her voice.  Effie White's story may have ended on a major chord, but Florence Ballard died nearly destitute at the age of 32. 

The movie itself moves along seamlessly with a minimum of dialogue, the cliches in the lyrics made palatable by the electricity of the singing.  But this is not the world of Shakespeare, this is the world of Grand Opera with all the grand camp that implies.  The words are nothing more than a medium to carry the primal emotions within the music.  The music, at the same time affecting and absurd, gives us a stylized rendering of a world of outsize emotions for which mere words can't express.  These figures are larger than life, and deserve the larger than life treatment.

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